The 2023 MLS SuperDraft takes place Wednesday via a conference call. Gone are the days of the draft being held in conjunction with the NSCAA Coach’s Convention. The draft as a whole has also seen its importance in the league wane over the last number of years. Sure, there are still impact players taken in the draft, like Allister Johnston who just transferred to Europe or Tajon Buchanan, who transferred to Club Brugge in Belgium over the summer of 2021 (finished the 2021 season on loan with the New England Revolution). At the same time though the number of impact players in the draft has faded. Gone are the days when every first-round pick is guaranteed to make the first team roster for the upcoming season.
On Wednesday, Sporting KC will be making the highest pick the team has had in more than a decade (not counting 2020 when they had traded what turned out to be the sixth overall pick to New England in the Krisztian Nemeth trade). Kansas City has the eighth pick in the draft and given the recent history even that high of a pick isn’t a guarantee of a for sure player. Looking at the last ten years of picks at the eighth spot there’s not a great success rate at the professional level. Going in reverse order, here’s a look at the last ten players taken eighth overall.
2022 - Ousseni Bouda - San Jose
A Generation Adidas player, so his cap hit was off budget, Bouda played just nine games for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2022, totaling just 108 minutes. He scored two goals in three appearances for San Jose’s MLS Next Pro team.
2021 - Derek Dodson - Orlando
Dodson was signed by Orlando City after being drafted eighth overall by the Lions. Dodson didn’t play a game for Orlando and was loaned to USL Championship side, Hartford Athletic halfway through the season. After the season Dodson’s option wasn’t picked up and he spent the 2022 season with Memphis 901 in the Championship.
2020 - Garrett McLaughlin - Houston
McLaughlin did not sign with the Houston Dynamo after being drafted eighth overall. Instead, McLaughlin signed with Houston’s USL Championship side, Rio Grande Valley FC, where he played eleven times in 2020. He spent the 2021 season with Toronto FC II in USL1 and stayed in the third tier of US Soccer in 2022 signing with North Carolina FC.
2019 - Sam Junqua - Houston
The first even moderate success of a player taken eighth overall in this break down. Junqua spent the 2019 season on loan with Rio Grande Valley before playing himself into a regular rotational player for Houston since. He’s played forty-six games over the last three seasons for Houston, starting twenty-four of them, scoring one goal and adding two assists.
2018 - Brandon Bye - New England
Bye is a player that many who still really tout the SuperDraft will point to, over his five seasons in the league, Bye has made 134 appearances, 120 starts, has seven goals and fifteen assists. He’s a regular starter for the Revolution defense, averaging twenty-six games played over his five seasons, and twenty-four starts.
2017 - Julian Gressel - Atlanta
Of the ten players selected eighth overall that I looked at, Gressel has probably had the best MLS career, appearing in 184 games, 165 of them starts, scoring twenty-one goals and adding sixty assists. He’s done it with three teams, having been traded by Atlanta United to DC United after a public contract dispute. He was traded this summer to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
2016 - Andrew Tarbell - San Jose
A player that Robb Heineman tweeted at the time was Kansas City’s target in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft (KC proceeded to trade out of the eleventh pick with DC United). Tarbell was San Jose’s starting goalkeeper in his third season in 2018, appearing in twenty-nine of the Earthquakes games that year. Since then, though, Tarbell has played just twelve games over the next four for three different teams (San Jose, Columbus, Austin) and just this offseason signed with the Dynamo. Over his career Tarbell has appeared in fifty-three games with a career GAA of 1.98.
2015 - Zach Steinberger - Houston
Steinberger spent two seasons in Houston but made just three league appearances for a total of 29 minutes played. He spent most of those two years on loan to Indy Eleven, Rio Grande Valley, and the Jacksonville Armada. After departing Houston, he spent time with Jacksonville, Indy, North Carolina, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies before retiring after the 2021 season.
2014 - Damion Lowe - Seattle
Lowe was a Generation Adidas signing by the league for the 2014 draft. The son of former Kansas City Wizard, Onandi Lowe, the younger Lowe made no appearances for Seattle in his three years with the club. Two of those years he spent more time on loan with the Sounders’ USL Championship side and Minnesota United when they played in the NASL still. After leaving Seattle he spent time with Tampa Bay, IK Start in Norway, Phoenix Rising, and Al Ittihad in Egypt before signing with Inter Miami for the 2022 season. Lowe became a starter for Inter, playing twenty-eight times and scoring a goal. He’s also been capped forty-eight times by the Jamaican national team.
2013 - Blake Smith - Montreal
Smith spent three years with the Montreal Impact appearing just twenty-five times over those three years. He spent time during that stretch on loan with Indy Elven. After a stint in Switzerland, he returned to the US with Miami FC and FC Cincinnati before getting a second shot in MLS with Cincinnati in their expansion season but was waived early in the year. He then spent time with Pacific FC in the Canadian Premier League and San Antonio FC before retiring from professional soccer.
Overall, in the last ten years you have maybe four players that have been hits, one of those (Lowe) took a while to finally seemingly come good in MLS. Of the other three, Gressel and Bye are clearly in a tier on their own with Junqua probably around the same level as Lowe.
That said, the only other time that KC has drafted eighth they drafted well, selecting Matt Besler in the 2009 draft. US Soccer Hall of Famer, Clint Dempsey was also selected eighth overall back in 2004. But the draft has changed dramatically since those drafts and getting a player of either’s caliber seems to be a big stretch at this point.
Whoever KC selects with the eighth pick has probably the best chance to make the first team since Graham Smith and Eric Dick in 2018. That said, given the recent history of the pick, don’t get your hopes up on the draft pick. Not that the player selected can’t be a solid contributor, just that the history (of KC in the draft recently or the league as a whole) isn’t in the player’s favor.
As for KC’s other pick in the draft on Wednesday, the 37th overall pick, these are the last ten players taken in that spot, Lucas Meek (2022 Inter Miami), Joe Hafferty (2021 Inter Miami), Robin Afamefna (2020 Colorado Rapids), Ben Lundt (2019 Cincinnati), Gordon Wild (2018 Atlanta), Walker Hume (2017 FC Dallas), Dennis Castillo (2016 Colorado), Edwin Rivas (2015 Toronto), George Malki (2014 Montreal), Jimmy Nealis (2013 Houston). Of that group, Castillo, drafted by Colorado in 2016 made the most appearances in MLS, appearing seven times for the Rapids, that’s more than the other nine players combined (Wild and Hume combined to make five appearances).
I don’t fault anyone for getting excited about the potential of incoming players, especially when the players could be a Generation Adidas talent at the eighth spot. That said I’m trying to temper that level of excitement, the draft isn’t what it used to be, there’s still plenty of talent available but it may not be what it once was.